Study finds discreet shipping used to sell e-cigarettes to minors

Researchers at the U of A found self-identified small business owners on TikTok are circumventing a number of local, state and federal laws that restrict the individual sale of tobacco products. Specifically, the researchers found that 45% of the videos highlighted the fact that they did not require identification to verify the purchaser’s age.

“Many states have laws that govern procedures necessary to sell e-cigarettes,” explained lead researcher Page Dobbs, an associate professor of public health in the Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation in the College of Education and Health Professions. “For example, many U.S. states require a tobacco retail license to sell tobacco products, and in the U.S., e-cigarettes are considered tobacco products. The videos we found display people across the world who are selling e-cigarettes. For those sold in the U.S., this displays illegal sales happening on TikTok.”

The researchers analyzed 367 videos on TikTok’s #discreetshipping, #puffbundle and #hiddennic pages, which had a combined 55.8 million views as of 2023. Fifty percent of the videos promoted certain brands in their hashtag, and 45% mentioned a cannabis product such as Cake Bars. Several described that they would bundle (28.6%) or hide (8.7%) the e-cigarette within other products to conceal it from being viewed when opened. This type of discreet shipping was intended to evade detection by the USPS service or parents/guardians who may intercept e-cigarettes purchased by youth. 

Over half (57.5%) of the videos directed users to Instagram or another method (58.3%) using a link or account information to sell the e-cigarette products. Other sites used to complete the sale of the e-cigarettes included Telegram, personal websites and other money transfer services. 

“Parents need to be aware that youth may be buying e-cigarettes through TikTok,” Dobbs said. “Parents can ask to view their children’s ‘For You’ page to see the type of content that is commonly portrayed. Next, if your child receives a bundle of fake nails, eyelashes, lip gloss or even something that seems out of the norm, such as house shoes, open the products and inspect it thoroughly. It may be inside a scrunchy that zips or in the foot of a pair of house shoes.”

Finally, regarding public policy, Dobbs says, “While platforms list their tobacco marketing and sale policies on their website, all content identified in our study violated these policies. Restricting TikTok will not stop people from illegally selling e-cigarettes to youth. Instead, tobacco control agencies can work collaboratively with platforms to use technological advances that will close hashtags, detect illegal activity and identify violations.”

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